Cultivate Attention and Discernment (5)

La Clairvoyance (1936) (“Perspicacity”) By René Magritte 1936.

“Sound judgement, with discernment is the best of seers.”

— Euripides

Reading time: 15-17 mins

So far, we’ve looked at healing the past so that we have a firm foundation upon which to build, such as choosing constructive, positive emotions. To be able to take the first steps, we must have enough self-respect and at least some measure of self-control to take responsibility for our own development. That means choosing this as a central aim parallel or including, a process of objectives, without self-deception or short-cuts. We must simplify our daily routines and scale back our ambitions so that undue complexity doesn’t enter in prematurely. Economising our energy permits progress to that end. If we never have enough mental, emotional and physical energy available then our aim will remain in the realm of fantasy – the very source of the drain itself. Non-identification, positive detachment and proper attention help us simplify and return to what is essential. To be aware of the mammalian brain and its addictive habits we can choose to cultivate attention. When we know what to look for, we can begin to recognise the emotional, intellectual and physical patterns which keep our creative potential trapped. We might then be able to discern the true nature of ourselves and our relationship to others.

So, what is “discernment” exactly? From the Latin words ‘dis’ (apart) and ‘cernere’ (to separate), it’s a skill that we develop in order to comprehend what is vague or obscure. This applies to a person, situation or an abstract idea. It is the art of seeing which includes the realm of the five senses and by extension, the possibility of accessing different modes of perception using the marriage of intuition and reason. And we do this by shunning self-orientated, subjective impressions and by striving to obtain an objective view of life as possible.

If we can comprehend something and reach clarity then we can exercise sound judgement and the further ability to discriminate between what is true or false. Discrimination – the noticing of any part, quality, impression, detail or difference in comparison to another object, person or situation – is the essential partner to discernment. Without constant discrimination between what is negative and positive, good or evil, gaining useful insights from a holistic view cannot be attained.

Careful discrimination weighs up and compares, discernment permits initial recognition of impressions received. We are then able to exercise judgement and reach a conclusion of the overall picture, coordinated by the will of attention. As Scottish theologian Sinclair B. Ferguson states: “True discernment means not only distinguishing [discriminating] the right from the wrong; it means distinguishing the primary from the secondary, the essential from the indifferent, and the permanent from the transient. And, yes, it means distinguishing between the good and the better, and even between the better and the best.” And this means learning that the “devil” is often in the details because lies to ourselves and lies in the outer world are frequently sandwiched between the sweet and seemingly well-intentioned. Or, as British Baptist Preacher Charles Spurgeon once cautioned: “Discernment is not a matter of telling the difference between right and wrong; rather it is telling the difference between right and almost right.” Which is why ancient philosophical traditions emphasize the subtleties inherent in developing such skills.

“Almost right” is still wrong. And that can be a big deal when your life depends on it.

Discernment is developed in order to refine perception. This leads to “perspicacity” or “perspicaciousness” which is essentially a “penetrating discernment”.  In other words, perspicacity arrives through the ability to discern. As you develop the art of seeing it naturally increases the quality of your overall perception. By combining the head and the heart, intuition and reason, we can learn to discriminate and judge correctly to receive clarity and insight. If we learn to develop this capacity then we begin to see the unseen and arrive at truth. By bridging the gap between objective and subjective features of reality, discernment/perspicacity becomes a quality of Being. The successful practice of discernment over time equates to wisdom.

We therefore have:

Discernment is not necessarily an aspect of the now popular “mindfulness” which is more passive than the active nature of the former, which leans towards inner guidance and eventual wisdom through experience. Mindfulness can be all those things but tends to emphasize the process of presence and letting go as mark of receptivity. Discernment remains a specific, active principle within that process; learning to see the subtle rather than the obvious, the hidden over the exposed. Yet, it becomes complicated by the fact that much is camouflaged with the truth of objects, people and situations “hidden in plain sight.”

Given that we are stuck in cultural hypnosis, applying these skills is very challenging, but not impossible. At least we can choose to make progress towards an ideal. And because discernment is such an integral part of the 31, we’ll include a little more background in this chapter to lodge it firmly in our memory.

“While their methods differ radically, artists and physicists share the desire to investigate the ways the interlocking pieces of reality fit together. This is the common ground upon which they meet.”

— Leonard Shlain

Artful Discernment

In the above work by surrealist artist René Magritte we have a rich depiction of the nature of discernment which he names “Perspicacity. This is both a self-portrait and a depiction of the mental process the artist undergoes when he engages with internal and external reality to produce a “work of art.” Through discernment, or the more literal British meaning of “clairvoyance”, he sees into the future, a voyeur with clarity, so that the egg becomes the visual, embryonic origins of the bird on the canvas. He is seeing what is not yet manifest from the egg which lends creative imagination to his palette and an a priori knowledge. It is the act of keen observation combined with creativity which interprets the present out of which the future takes form. As Magritte was part of the movement of Surrealism which had the forces of dreams and the unconscious at the forefront of artistic expression, the aim was to access the realm of dreams and their relationship to waking life.

The question then is: are we “dreaming up” images from the world of what we know, or what we think I know?

Creative insights come from establishing the objective reality of that object and its relationships and then letting the imagination access any number of alternative timelines and visions, reinventing time and space, form and colour – and of course, perception. Ideally, when not aligned to entropy, the artist’s role is to act as an intermediary between different dimensions of reality; to communicate new ways of seeing the world and potentially unifying our emotional and intellectual brains. Artists discern the symbolism in material reality and turn it on its head to provide insights and underlying truths. In this way, art and physics are two sides of the discernment coin.

Many great thinkers have claimed the same such as novelist James Baldwin who believed: “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers,” and physicist David Bohm who saw physics as “…a form of insight and as such, is a form of art.” Indeed, the true artist (often a tortured soul) may be, in fact, a contemporary shaman of seeing, who brings back nourishing truths for the community at large to digest. The Russian philosopher P.D. Ouspensky, whom we’ve met several times before, reiterated Magritte’s version of “Perspicacity” and the importance of the artist in relation to seeing that which is hidden: “Only that fine apparatus which is called the soul of the artist can understand and feel the reflection of the noumenon [*] in the phenomenon. In art it is necessary to study “occultism”  – the hidden side of life. The artist must be a clairvoyant: he must see that which others do not see; he must be a magician: must possess the power to make others see that which they do not themselves see, but which he does see.” [1]

The visual arts of Western civilisation have acted as a precursor and a mediator between the advances in science, in particular, 20th Century physics and its explorations of the nature of reality. Revolutionary art anticipates revolutionary advances in physics so that linear time births new visions in non-local space. Or as author and surgeon Leonard Shlain sees it, a rift in the recognition of the brain’s left hemisphere of science/cognition/time and the right hemisphere of art/mysticism/space might be bridged so that: “When the vision of the revolutionary artist, rooted in Dionysian right hemisphere, combines with precognition, art will prophesy the future conception of reality”. [2] This is another way to interpret what Magritte depicted in his painting.

Daoist Discernment

As artists have used their discernment of reality to evoke new visions and possibilities, many philosophers, psychologists and scientists have sought to understand the nature of the discerning mind. Vigilance, attention, focus, and the constant “mindfulness” recommended by Gautama Buddha are injunctions to protect and the defend the growing soul in world inhabited by predatorial dangers; the “light-eaters” who seek psycho-spiritual nutrients of others since they have neither the will, capacity or the desire to create their own. Jesus and St. Paul warned about the many tempations that beset the spiritual seeker. Without proper discernment of good and evil we are at the mercy of the unknown, knee deep in predators.

Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism emphasize various levels of discernment as a prerequisite for truth. “Cognitive mistakes” are the source of assumptions and erroneous beliefs regarding the nature of reality which is hidden behind a multitude of phenomena harking back to metaphysical illusion or “Maya.” Our mind is necessarily a co-constituent of external reality, therefore we must learn to discern our relationship to that reality and the ability to determine the true from the false.

From the Japanese concept of Wabi Sabi which seeks the same process of discernment to reveal the sensate beauty and rhythms in nature and our connection to it, Chinese Taoism also shows a way to cultivate discernment best represented from the “Bible” of Taoist philosophy, The Tao Te Ching. Translators have given a multitude of interpretations for discernment within this sacred text. In Chapter 36 for example, we have discernment variously translated as: “…the subtle perception of the way things are”; “the perception of the nature of things”; “…the subtle understanding of how things are meant to be” “…understanding the hidden” “subtle clarity”; “subtle insight” “clarity about the invisible” and finally “subtle discernment.” Again, the subtle nature of insight is key to discrimination regarding negative and positive qualities.

The principle of constancy amid ceaseless change returns us to our roots in the same way nature gains nourishment from the Earth where each separate species plays an essential part in maintaining the biosphere. This is true of the human condition and its inner ecology that requires adaptation to change – known and unknown – in order to align with one’s true role and purpose. Through a deep questioning which reflects the Western deep ecology movement, we begin to gain humility and awe in the face of aparadoxical progression of deep simplicity at greater and greater levels of seeming complexity. Quietening the mind or achieving stillness allows constancy, which in turn, permits us to recognise and process the unseen developing our knowledge on an ascending spiral of awareness.

I do my utmost to attain emptiness;
I hold firmly to stillness.
The myriad creatures all rise together
And I watch their return.
The teaming creatures
All return to their separate roots.
Returning to one’s roots is known as stillness.
This is what is meant by returning to one’s destiny.
Returning to one’s destiny is known as the constant.
Knowledge of the constant is known as discernment.

[Chapter 16; Tao Te Ching]

Once we have attained stillness, detachment, non-identification and presence of mind we use persistence and will to “hold firmly” to this state. “The myriad creatures” is a metaphor for the animals which make up Nature and perhaps, the disparate little “I”s which inhabit our own nature. Through emptiness (from the releasement of inner considering and emotional reactions of the “I”s) we are able to observe “their return”. In other words, we are able to know our nature/personality/ego as these “teaming creatures” which exist within each centre of our mind-body system. From this new sacred space, this special enclosure of stillness within, the teaming nature of all these unconscious complexes of “I”s wild and predatory, consuming our energy for their own “separate” existences, we can assist in their rebirth through self-regulation, where each “I” is known, observed and understood, returning to their proper place or “roots” within the overall mind-body complex.

Stillness (and periods of essential silence) becomes habituated and our personality and ego consciousness is “constant,” no longer prey to deformations and distortions. If our character attains constancy, developed through the quiet power of will and persistence, then we return to our true destiny. This “knowledge of the constant” is self-awareness which is grown through discernment. There is always change based on entropy or creativity. Our job is to discern how we might handle that change and which direction we choose. And we go back to the beginning of the verse since discernment is a cyclic process on an ascending arc of comprehension and contemplation.

“Obscurity is dispelled by augmenting the light of discernment, not by attacking the darkness.”

— Socrates

The 5,000 year-old Taoist and Confucian Chinese Book of Changes or I Ching also values discernment. The Richard Wilhelm translation from ancient Chinese dialects into German and then English is still the most popular and well-recognised version.

Wilhelm translates hexagram 32 as “Duration” to explain the principle of longevity, continuity and endurance. Continuous change is the nature of existence. The only way to make one’s character endure is to apply constancy in the face of those changes so that a balance of forces is eventually maintained. In a world that thrives and decays through known and unpredictable change the only things that have duration are the principles and laws upon which change is based and in what quality and direction that change will manifest.

The imagery in this hexagram is that of Thunder over Wind. The man of character and fortitude is one who is like a tree that is buffeted by winds of change but remains constant and cannot be uprooted. He is not intimidated by the power of the elements yet dutifully mimics their cycles of expression by knowing when to be active and when to be passive. Discernment is constancy but also the recognition of context – when to act and when to remain still. Thoughts and actions in relation to good and evil must be adapted to a specific situation in order to glean the correct response.  Therefore, caution and prudence make up an essential part of discernment.

Another hexagram is number 21, “Biting Through” which means getting to the truth. The “biting” is engaging with the obstacle in question, and “biting through” is to discriminate and discern the truth of the matter. In other words, it is the act of seeing. When one is able to see a situation or person correctly, then biting through means there is a possibility for union, hence the metaphor of upper and lower rows of teeth biting through tough gristle of meat to meet in “union.” We take a situation into ourselves and “chew it over” and digest the possible meaning. That could mean seeing under surface appearances and not being blinded by dazzling impressions. It could refer to the discovery of truth in a tight spot, or under arduous circumstances. 21 shows us that discernment is required to alert us to the truth, and once we see, we can unite with whatever promotes health, success, comprehension, happiness or relief. Indeed, any direction that leads away from evil.

H.21 also uses law and penalties to symbolise the nature of discernment. It asks us what we must do to get to the truth in order to penetrate to the essence of a given matter. Sometimes, life enacts “penalties” and “punishments” as a result of our wilful blindness and ignorance. As we begin to wake up and take responsibility, we become the defence, prosecution, judge and jury all rolled into one. As we move forward with the process of self-regulation and growth we make amends and bear witness. From this “legal” process, our internal morality, ethics and strength of character begin to form.

The development of awareness through discernment must enact a form of justice in order that we learn our lessons. For such rehabilitation to be effective limitations and constraints must be willingly taken on so that we might apply this new maturity later on. (This is where H.32 ‘Duration’; H.5 ‘Waiting’ and H.20 ‘Contemplation’ form a triage of guidance). Adherence to natural limitations and boundaries means we voluntarily pay a “penance” by being “detained” from interacting fully with life so we gather our resources and allow new space for growth to form. Or, we can avoid Natural Law and go on the run, breaking out of a temporary holding pattern and back into the illusion of a world that is the ultimate prison. We then move closer to self-condemnation and a form of slow execution by our own hand – choosing spiritual death instead of life.

The commentary from the image in H.21 states:

“Thunder and Lightning: Biting Through.
The ancient kings brought light to punishments and enforced the laws.”

The “ancient kings” are the spiritual ancestors of wisdom and authority. They are the archetypes of nobility, wisdom and the union of heart and head. These Kings alert us to Natural and karmic laws which cannot be bypassed or ignored if you seek the truth. The moment we strive to discover meaning and purpose, to align ourselves to truth as a declaration of who we are, we are also determining what direction our life will take from that moment of biting through. What will we do with the choices presented to us upon its discovery? Will we continue the struggle no matter what, or will we suffer “punishment” from transgressing Natural Law? If our discernment is not up to scratch or we choose to bail out from the events we have set in motion then the opportunity to learn about ourselves and/or from an obstacle that lies in our way is lost. That means we haven’t learned the lesson and penalties will be incurred through our own weakness. This is a simple law of life. Those that don’t exert limits at the proper moment nor learn to see the cycles of change and adaption will be open to chaos.

It doesn’t mean that God, Nature and the Universe is an authoritarian executioner wielding a cosmic axe upon those who decide not to do their homework. It just means we have a choice to SEE, to discern the emotional currents, attitude, reactions and the life we create for ourselves so that we navigate according to what IS not what we subjectively believe it to be. There are always consequences. Such “penalties” for going against your destiny can be painful but as incisive as a surgeon’s blade. Sometimes they are dramatic, unexpected and shocking. But we are offered an opportunity to test our mettle and learn the lesson, to transcend the shock and its suffering and to experience an excoriation of the masks of ego that were holding us back. Then we break the chains of the past and negative patterns of behaviour so that we begin to educate ourselves and build wisdom from the experiences.

“False christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect”

— Matthew 24:24

Virtues, Spirits and “God’s Desire”

The Greek and Roman philosophers held discernment in high regard. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics in general valued discernment as an essential road to a life more in harmony with others and the natural world. Ethics, notions of morality; values and virtues; non-Discursive Reasoning; right understanding; the choice between good and evil, judgement; common sense, self-reliance; applied knowledge – all require proper “judicial” discernment to arrive at an equitable or harmonious conclusion.

Derived from the Greek philosophical tradition (in particular Plato’s Republic) and developed by various individuals in classical antiquity and Christian theology, the Four Cardinal Virtues comprise:

    • Prudence = Wisdom through discernment. When to take action and when to keep still in any given context.
    • Courage = Endurance, strength of will and facing the unknown with integrity and fearlessness.
    • Temperance = Self-control, restraint and absention.
    • Justice = fairness, truth and equity.

We can see that all the above require discernment to be properly applied. Without this faculty we cannot expand our awareness enough to merit wisdom – to know when to act and when to desist, when to endure and when to hide our light. Nor can we develop enough self-control to make a decision according to what we have seen, objectively speaking. Making proper judgements will also be faulty if the above qualities are flawed since our emotions will rule our reasons and make judgements too subjective and biased to reveal truth and offer recipricol value. Prudence determines whether or not we can develop courage, temperance or justice within, thus apply it to daily life.

In Christianity, discernment is used in a more theological sense. To live according to God’s wishes requires the art of seeing in daily life so that Christians align themselves to “God’s desire”. It implies a devotion to spiritual law and religious doctrine. Equally, such a desire requires us to choose between good vs evil and see the signs which might point to a certain vocation or calling, the resolution of which is derived from developing the skill of discernment.

The so-called “Biblical discernment” doesn’t necessarily mean accepting dogma to the exclusion of all else, rather it teaches us to separate good from the evil within ourselves and life in general so that we might become closer to God, the Way of Truth anf goodness. Indeed, the Bible continually exhorts every Christian to exercise responsibility and “… examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.” (First Thessalonians 5:21-22) To do so, is to protect oneself against false teachers or as the disciple, John cautioned the faithful to “… test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1). Pretty good advice since our world is saturated in facsimiles of truth and their endless detours and distractions.

Rather than being confused with an ability to “think Biblically” in everyday life, Jesus’ injunction was, I believe, to exercise self-responsibility by getting to know evil’s extremely wily ways. When we lie to ourselves by choosing the easy way, these are continually reflected in a “fallen” world, setting up an attractive feedback loop of increasing manipulation and deception – often with good intentions. True knowledge of God must begin with seeing the truth within ourselves which means a balance of reason and intuition of the heart since: “The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouths of fools feed on folly.” (Proverbs 15:14)

Tapping into “Spirit” is to embark on a path of healing, self-regulation, attention, objective analysis amd developing intuition. “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” (John 4:1) And the spirit of God is really how we can choose to tread the path toward our highest Being – aligning ourselves with applied knowledge which is as close as we can get to the concept of pure truth, love and goodness – whatever our surface religion or philosophy. To know the “…distinction between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean” (Leviticus 10:10) is to exercise discernment.

We could even say that to discern and discriminate between good and evil is one of the most profound and valuable teachings of the Bible. Although distorted by dogmatic and theological propaganda, it is nonetheless a useful guide stone for moral equilibrium and a reflection of self-observation and self-remembering in a more esoteric context.

Christian theology and the Orthodox Church in general uses an umbrella term called “Discernment of Spirits” which is dvided into four categories:

  1. Concupiscence – lower desire from instincts and “passions” which are contrary to reason.
  2. Divine Grace – Influences which inspire values and virtues which align to “God desire.”
  3. Angels – Intermediaries of God / Goodness, truth etc.
  4. Devils – Intermediaries of Satan /Evil, lies, deception etc.

In order to arrive at the correct judgement as to which was on first, then much study and contemplation were encouraged. And you can see that the ability to focus our attention toward judicious discernment is the skill needed to make our way through the jungle of evil disguising itself as good, and perhaps, when goodness is mischaracterised as evil. Our spiritual life depends on this ability to see the signs and act in defence of the soul. Religious doctrine may have got in the way of that truth, but that truth remains nonetheless. And when you combine the Four Cardinal Virtues above with the map of Discernment of Spirits then you have a pretty sound navigational tool for this earthly jungle.

The late 15th-16th Century Catholic Saint Ignatius of Loyola, creator of the Jesuit order or “Society of Jesus” incorporated the “Discernment of the Spirits” in his teachings, or what St. Ignatius called “The motions of the soul”. This method amounts to a religious form of self-development which requires knowledge of the personality and the root causes of feelings, inclinations and desires in order to purify oneself to receive Divine Grace. The “good spirits” or Godly virtues were to be encouraged and the “evil spirits” such as negative emotions, distracting fantasies and uncontrolled desires were to be recognised and dispersed. Through this process, people would begin to understand and follow God’s will.

“Spirits” moving within a person were a religious version of the Medieval medicine of the Four Humours whereby thoughts, feelings, desires and instincts were anthropomorphised and given the labels of elemental, angel or demon. The job was to discern which spirit was flowing through you, wholly controlling your fate, tempting your constancy, or if any one influence was bringing you closer to God’s will. With sufficient knowledge, discernment was the guiding principle toward the ultimate salvation of the soul.

The reader might see a relationship to present psychology of “ego-states” as well as Fourth Way teachings of “Little ‘I’s” which make up Jung’s unconscious psychic complexes of the “false” self. Whether “spirits”, “ego-states” or “I”s, discernment is needed to bring them all into a purposeful integration and creative synthesis.

What we can learn from the prominence of discernment in early and late Christianity is that it was and is, intimately tied to morality and judgement and the crucial employment of discrimination of good and evil. Without a sound morality, no judgement can be fair or just. And equally, no judgement can be worth its salt if it is not guided by the hard won memories of learned lessons and the wisdom it bestows. Ultimately then, attention, discernment, discrimination and perspicacity are all sourced from a purified vessel through which conscience / soul germinates and grows.

By the time we reach the 17th Century, rationalist giants like Rene Descartes saw discernment as the key to a mathematical simplicity and order. Although a scientist who helped birth the Cartesian mindset religious truth was the very principle that gave meaning to his life. In his unfinished treatise Rules he states: “In order to acquire discernment we should exercise our intelligence by investigating what others have already discovered, and methodically survey even the most insignificant products of human skill, especially those which display order”. [3]  It is this intelligent awareness of “insignificance” and the subtlety of signs that allow us to simplify and conserve energy but to also extract the symbolism from the smallest material expression. Every moment can teach us something about existence if we are open and receptive to those mysteries. Through the pursuit of knowledge, Descartes believed that every aspect of our cognitive abilities needed to be employed (intellect, imagination, sense perception, and memory) so that simple truths were seen so that we might prime ourselves to handle more complex perceptions of reality.

Descartes was not alone in this. His colleague and fellow scientist Antoine Arnauld proclaimed in his The Art of Thinking, that the main aim of logic is to instil clear thinking. Moreover, he believed that discerning the true from false “…is the most important measure of minds.” [4] The English Enlightenment philosopher and physician John Locke highlighted the danger of universal impressions passing for innate truths whilst overlooking the root causes of those accepted propositions. It is the “clear discerning faculty of the mind” which is vital, without which no knowledge is possible. [5]

Apart from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s notoriety gained from the Hegelian Dialectic and his belief in the supremacy of the State he was also of the mind that science is about “…discerning absolute reality through our consciousness.” [6] Strangely enough, Hegel to my mind, hit the metaphysical nail on the head when he encouraged his colleagues to look at both relative knowledge (in relation to other things) and absolute knowledge (reality which exists of its own accord and not needing relations to anything else) and to see a non-physical reality behind all things. For Hegel, the real utility of discernment was to discover consciousness rather than the various forms it uses to clothe itself. In the same way, it was not love of knowledge but the application of knowledge that determined the results of proper discernment. This was a radical departure from the type of steely rationalism which characterised the 18th Century, only to be mildly offset by the emerging romanticism of America and Germany in the 19th century.

During this period of romantic yearning it was the 19th Century’s William James – often called the father of psychology – who saw discernment and discrimination as vital tools of proper perception. Like George Gurdjieff’s teachings about sixty years later, James believed we were all very far from attaining a true freedom of the mind in this regard; our inability to awaken from a deep perceptual “sleep” remaining as strong then as it does now. James stated:

“Everyone is familiar with the phenomenon of feeling more or less alive on different days. Every one knows on any given day that there are energies slumbering in him which the incitements of that day do not call forth, but which he might display if these were greater. Most of us feel as if we lived habitually with a sort of cloud weighing on us, below our highest notch of clearness in discernment, sureness in reasoning, or firmness in deciding. Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half-awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked. We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.” [7]

“The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth. Only he who is capable of attention can do this.”

— Simone Weil

There is one more individual for whom discernment formed an important part of a unique philosophy and social conscience during the tumultuous period of the early and mid-20th Century. In later life, the French philosopher and social activist Simone Weil saw the development of attention as an empathic response to multi-levelled suffering leading to the practice of discernment which posited a different emphasis, though no less valid. This ethical orientation used empathy to discern the internal process of an individual’s suffering, the activism of which arose from injustice as one response to that processing and the social environment that shape a person’s pain.

For Weil, attention and the consequent discernment is a product of an underlying desire which need not necessarily have a definite focus other than a higher, humanitarian or spiritual drive based on an empathic recognition of suffering and a receptivity to “higher” impulses. This choice to see and listen to the voice of conscience inevitably caused friction as the ego’s will was consciously reduced and aligned to soul qualities. In one sense, though not explicitly stated, she was really illustrating a receptivity to alchemical purification whereby a person’s egoic state is stripped away to become “empty” thus offering a sacred space or a living vessel for transformation.

Weil’s philosophy manages to include not just the process of forming attention and discernment but how vigilance, will, non-anticipation, non-identification with the object of our desires is crucial to knowing God and learning to be receptive to that creative energy. Attention and discernment become the tools and the antidote to authoritarianism, external force and suffering.

Empathy, compassion, reason, intuition, the microsocial and macrosocial conscience all encased in a devotional yearning, made Weil a genuinely unique mix of philosopher, Christian mystic, ascetic, communist, Platonist, social and political activist with no practical contradictions, though certainly theoretical. For instance, she had no problems at all in criticising the obvious and fatal flaws in Marxism in her writings and in person during the 1930s but experienced certain inner conflicts and unresolved contradictions through her anorexic body. This may have been a more than mere elected acetism or perhaps it was true that she actually discerned too much, which took its inevitable toll on her sensitive nervous system, as is common with those highly attuned to states of consciousness determined by self-regulation, integration and synthesis.

The clear periods of inevitable suffering that define such a non-linear, sincere, heart-centred journey mirrored the epoch through which she lived. It made her quest a moral emblem of not only her own struggles and to share and articulate that personal journey but the visceral conflict of that troubled century of which she was a part. It was the exchange of recognition, an activated conscience and a dialectic of discernment which made her insights all the more rich.


* = An object or event that exists independently of human sense and/or perception.


[1] pp.161-162; Ouspensky, P.D.; Tertium Organum: A Key To The Enigmas Of The World (1970) Published by New York Vintage.
[2] p.427; Shlain, Leonard; Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Time and Space (1991) Published by William Morrow & Co.
[3] Stokes, Philip. Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers. Arcturus Publishing. Kindle Edition.
[4] Ibid.
[5] ‘An Essay Concerning Human Understanding’ by John Locke (1690) |
[6] p. 121; Butler-Bowdon, Tom. 50 Philosophy Classics: Thinking, Being, Acting Seeing – Profound Insights and Powerful Thinking from Fifty Key Books (50 Classics)  Hodder & Stoughton. Kindle Edition.


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